Brigitte Bardot visits Pablo Picasso
The 21-year-old ‘sex kitten’ holds her own against the old predator, Picasso, during a visit to his studio at Vallauris, near Cannes, during the film festival in 1956
When the first Daguerreotype photograph was taken in the 1830s, a French artist sonorously prophesied: “From this day, painting is dead.” It took Picasso to prove him wrong, by demonstrating the limits of photographic vision. The camera is restricted to surfaces; painting, if it is as aggressive and inquisitorial as Picasso’s, can torment and transform the world of appearances, violently metamorphosing matter. “Reality must be torn apart,” Picasso told his lover, Françoise Gilot. People, especially women, had to undergo the same painful fate.
In the gutted art nouveau salon of his villa, the old predator might be explaining the process to a new and tastily nubile subject. The evidence of his almost maniacal creativity litters the room, with a reproduction of his most scabrous cubist painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – a scene from a bordello in which the whores regress into tribal witches – propped up at its exact centre, along with a sketch of a chunky odalisque, ceramic vessels with ripe female contours and the portrait of a matriarch who has jarring, angular facets instead of a face. The two spotlights, raised on a frame that is an emaciated metal body, could be abstractions of Picasso’s black eyes, which, as Jean Cocteau said, “pierced like gimlets”. A camera’s lens blinks harmlessly, but the painter’s gaze was surgically ruthless, making sight a weapon.
Bardot’s ponytail is a coquettish concession to Picasso: he adored that fashionable hair-do, because it pulled the skin taut and made the face a mask. Otherwise, to do her credit, she seems to be resisting his mesmerism. A vaguely Minoan sculpted head intrudes between the two figures, to warn her about the deforming sorcery he practised. She places her legs wide apart, perhaps to bring her down to his level but more likely because she is standing her ground, refusing to be intimidated. And although the hand that fingers her dress is girlish in its fiddly discomfort, the dress itself, with its leafy floral pattern, is the repudiation of his cruel, undecorative art.
There is an ironic epilogue, fortunately invisible here. Have you seen recent paparazzi snapshots of Bardot? Fifty-five years on, she looks like a raddled lioness; time, gnawing into her lovely face, has inevitably turned her into a Picasso. This is a photograph of a painting that got away and the camera has the last word, or the last laugh.
by Peter Conrad